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SALEM, N.H.—Well, that was something.
By the time former President Donald Trump left a high school auditorium Saturday afternoon—his return to the campaign trail after an unusually sleepy start to his 2024 campaign—he had ricocheted off many of his standbys: indulging conspiracy theories, nursing conservatives’ fears about race and gender, and offering an alternative reality to his successor’s record. The hour-long diatribe suggested Joe Biden would have been shrewd to throw his son, Hunter, under the bus, that the Taliban were incapable of fighting at night because they lacked “binoculars,” and that wind turbines routinely knock planes out of the sky.
It was, in essence, a standard Trump speech, but with a more uneven pacing, and a little weirder and meandering.
For a fragile frontrunner facing criticism for the shaky start to his third bid for the White House, Trump’s initial showing did little to calm the skittishness that the candidate himself acknowledged.
“They said, ‘He’s not campaigning. Maybe he’s lost a step,’” Trump said, mocking his critics. “I am more angry now and I am more committed now than ever.”
Maybe, but words—even hyper-exaggerated and errant ones—aren’t deeds. Trump on Saturday dropped into New Hampshire to speak to the state party’s annual meeting, where he picked up the backing of the party chair who ended his term on Saturday. He then jetted to South Carolina, where he unfurled a pack of high-wattage supporters at the state capitol. As political events go, they were fairly routine and expected steps for presidential hopefuls.
“Together we will complete the unfinished business of making America great again,” Trump said in Columbia, S.C.
Yet Trump isn’t starting as a blank-slate national candidate. The image of Trump is pretty well baked at this point. A meager 5% of Americans said they don’t have an opinion about the only President who was impeached twice and whose actions in the wake of the 2020 election led to a deadly attack on the Capitol, according to the latest CNN poll. Trump may want to campaign as a traditional candidate with the universal support befitting a former President, but that isn’t his core competency, and he seems to lack the requisite skills to keep his ship afloat as some two dozen would-be pirates are on the docks and considering their own next steps.
For potential Trump challengers, Saturday’s showing should not have spooked anyone from the race. Sure, Trump can still butcher political red meat with the best of them; he can slag his foes without a flinch, call the modern Democratic Party a tribe of socialists, Marxists, and communists, and disparage Black Lives Matter demonstrators as criminals. But mentions of Hunter Biden’s errant laptop seemed to land with a thud, and members of the audience seemed to go numb when “Crooked Hillary” Clinton came up in remarks that seemed like a time capsule from six years ago. His boasts about being called “your excellency” now just seem sad.
Trump has a rich reservoir of material to mine, to be sure. If you strip away his crude mannerism and crash rhetoric, his agenda as President actually gave conservatives a whole lot of the wishlist that’s been incomplete since the Reagan era. Trump smartly picked up on the public’s latent—and then not-so-latent—discontent with the border criss, the economic disparities incumbent with globalization, the rampant drug addiction crisis in this country. In turn, he reshaped the modern GOP to fit his needs.
On this new jaunt to New Hampshire, he used a more aggressive pivot to parents’ rights and education—including, unfortunately, a lot of talk about school sports and trans kids—but it was lost amid so much noise.
Ex-Presidents leave office with some truly unique stories, and Trump is no exception. On Saturday, amid a salvage yard of anti-trans exclusionary ideas and the direct election of school principals by anti-woke parents, Trump told the tale of landing in another country and being shocked that Air Force One had to dim its lights and draw the shades for security precautions. He talked about his negotiating sessions with the Taliban and the five telephone operators who stood by to help him place calls. Corporate clients might pay top dollar to hear such anecdotes on the lecture circuit. The members of The Presidents Club command six-figures for an afternoon in a convention center, and Trump’s time in D.C. is certainly ripe for storytime.
Which, if you listen carefully to the activists in the audience at Republican events in recent years—and especially after Jan. 6, 2021—is where many in the party would prefer Trump spend his days. To a tee, they all praise what Trump was able to accomplish but aren’t exactly eager to rush back into the late-night tweets, the performative trolling of anyone not wrapped in a Trump fleece, or the erratic policymaking by hunch. They’re objectively good anecdotes, even if it’s unclear how any of them help convince voters Trump should again be given the nuclear codes.
“I liked President Trump’s policies,” Michael Loftus tells me as we were waiting in the school hallway for Trump to start his speech. “But he’s so divisive,” the 67-year-old retiree from Newport continues. “Going forward, we need someone who is not so controversial.”
That, no matter how much sandpaper Trump brings to his new workshop, will never be the case. Which is why Sen. Lindsey Graham, appearing with Trump in South Carolina, took direct aim at that criticism: “How many times have you heard, ‘We like Trump policies but we want somebody new’? There are no Trump policies without Donald Trump.”
There may be no Republican Party, either.
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